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6 Backdoor Pilots (and why they belong at the back door)

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A "backdoor pilot" doesn't refer to some TWA navigator with an unusual fetish; it is a term used in the TV industry to describe the use of an established TV show to test the waters for a proposed new series. Confused? Here are some examples:

1. The Multi-cultural Brady Bunch Spin-off that Never Was

During the final season of The Brady Bunch, the Brady family generously relinquished most of a 30 minute episode in order to introduce their neighbors, Ken and Kathy Kelly (portrayed by Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy). The Kellys had adopted three boys "“ Matt, Dwayne, and Steve "“ in what must be the minimum amount of time required by California law. Sounds like a rather blah premise until you consider the "groundbreaking" 1970s twist: one of the boys was white, one was African-American, and one was Asian-American. Sherwood Schwartz hoped that Kelly's Kids would be picked up as a series, but the network passed.

5 More after the jump!

2. The Original (and more bitter) Empty Nest

Fans of The Golden Girls often rate the episode entitled "Empty Nests" as one of their least favorites. This episode featured only peripheral appearances by the four principals, and instead introduced us to previously-never-seen neighbors Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley, who were going through a marital crisis shortly after their college-aged daughter moved out. Empty Nest eventually did become a series, but only after some serious re-tooling. The producers decided that the original premise would have dissolved into constant bickering between Dooley and Moreno's characters, so they were dumped in favor of a widowed Richard Mulligan, whose adult daughters had moved back home. (Sort of made the nest not-so-empty, but why quibble over the little details?)

3. Tony Orlando goes Quiet

Once upon a time (specifically, the mid-1970s) Tony Orlando's career was on fire; along with Dawn "“ backing vocalists Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson "“ he hit number one on the Billboard pop charts three times. For three years, the trio also hosted a popular TV variety show that attracted the biggest names in show business. Around that same time, Bill Cosby was focusing on stand-up comedy, and often worked as an opening act for Orlando's Las Vegas shows. Flash forward to 1985, when The Cosby Show ruled the prime time airwaves, and Orlando couldn't even get a job on the oldies concert tour circuit. The Cos graciously tried to help out his old pal with an episode of The Cosby Show titled "Mr. Quiet," in which Orlando appeared as the head of the local community center. Later, Tony admitted that the reason this proposed pilot wasn't picked up as a series was, simply, because his performance "stunk."

4. Three Strikes for Who's the Boss

There's an old show biz adage that says "if you throw enough [censored] against the wall, sooner or later something will stick." The creators of Who's the Boss doggedly tried to make lightning strike twice (and thrice) with limited success. In one instance, Leah Remini "“ Samantha's best friend from Brooklyn who'd never been mentioned in previous shows "“ came to visit. She ended up with a modeling contract by the end of the episode, courtesy of agency owner Michael Learned. (Living Dolls, the resultant series, lasted only 16 episodes and is probably remembered best as the launching pad for future Academy Award winner Halle Berry.) Another episode pitted Fran Drescher and Donna Dixon against one another as spokesmodels for a line of pre-packaged Italian food. Charmed Lives, the sitcom ABC created from this equation, lasted a mere three episodes.

5. The Nanny gets a Makeover

Speaking of Fran Drescher, she hosted her own back door pilot in the "Chatterbox" episode of her sitcom, The Nanny. Tracy Nelson portrayed an aspiring actress trying to make ends meet. She was hired as a shampoo girl at the Chatterbox (Fran's favorite salon) owned by Patrick Cassidy, a single dad who seemed to need help raising his son. The show was little more than The Nanny set in a beauty parlor. CBS rejected the new series, deciding that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

6. A Taste of Really Strong Medicine

The Whoopi Goldberg-produced Strong Medicine was one of the Lifetime network's most successful original series. They had managed to land a string of three former major network stars to star in the hospital drama: Janine Turner, Patricia Richardson and Rick Schroder. No wonder they got a bit cocky by Season Five and used one episode to launch First Response, an Emergency! clone about the trials and tribulations of paramedics on the job. First Response centered around Dr. Vanessa Burke, the head of the Rittenhouse Hospital trauma center, who happened to be an African-American orphan adopted by a white family. The family's natural daughter (Katie) was a former drug addict/juvenile offender who had allegedly turned her life around and was now an EMT (hired only because her adoptive big sister gave her a break). Viewers needed a blowtorch to cut through all the plot contrivances presented in this pilot, so it's no wonder the show was never picked up.

As you're watching the syndicated reruns of your favorite shows, keep an eye out for an episode that features very little on-screen time of the main stars. It just may have been the producers slipping a backdoor pilot in for your consideration. Let us know of any you've noticed that we haven't mentioned.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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